Haircuts used to be short and simple - no mousse, no fuss, just scissors and Sal

November 14, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd

YOU GET TO a certain age, your dreams change. The other night, I had the most wonderful dream about a haircut I got at a place called Sal's.

In this dream, Sal himself was a small, frail-looking man in a white barber shirt who wheezed softly in your ear as he cut your hair. He worked in his two-chair barbershop with his partner Angelo, who chain-smoked Luckies and studied the Racing Form and never seemed to have any customers.

There was wild, minimalist beauty to Sal's.

It wasn't located on the second level of the mall between Eddie Bauer and The Nature Company, but next to Wilson's Pharmacy.

There was no art-deco color scheme, no disco lights in the window, no pale-mahogany-and-brass decor, no hanging ferns, no sparkles on the ceiling.

There was no salad bar-ish display of hair sprays, styling gels, cans of mousse and herbal conditioners near the front register.

At Sal's, you entered by the barber's pole and saw bottles of Vitalis and Wildroot and Brylcreem, thick as bleu cheese dressing.

There was a bank of hand clippers in front of each chair and scissors arranged with the precision of surgical instruments on white cloths.

There was a tall jar filled with long black combs floating in blue disinfectant.

There was a team picture of the 1966 World Champion Orioles on one wall. On the other was a shelf containing bowling trophies, most for the Monday Night C League.

God, I loved the place!

Here's another thing I loved: When you first walked into Sal's, a big-haired shampoo girl with too much mascara didn't rush up to you like a cocker spaniel on amphetamines and chirp: "We're ready for you now!"

Instead you plopped yourself down on a green vinyl bench, which was lopsided and unsteady and featured a large crack exposing the stuffing inside.

Then you thumbed through 3-year-old copies of Field and Stream and Popular Mechanics until Sal motioned you to the chair with a courtly wave of his arm.

Sal himself brought a wild, minimalist beauty to his work, too.

He knew only one way to cut hair: short.

If you said: "Just a little off the top, Sal," he'd cut it short.

If you said: "Could we thin it on top and layer it on the side?" he'd cut it short.

It wasn't that he was learning-impaired, or contrary, or cantankerous. There was just a certain hairstyle he liked to see on a man, which could best be described Desi Arnaz: The Early Years.

After you told Sal how you wanted your hair cut, an eerie silence descended on the room, broken only by the quiet snip! snip! snip! of scissors and the occasional rustle of paper as Angelo turned the pages of the Racing Form.

There was no 18-inch color TV blaring from a bone-white wall unit, with Sally Jessy Raphael interviewing newlywed husbands who cheat on their wives and lock them in dank root cellars while they go about their philandering.

There was no alternative rock pulsating from tiny speakers, no whiny screeching from disillusioned young lead singers about breaking up with a girl or getting a D in algebra and turning to smack.

There was just Sal and his scissors and his comb, deliberate, unhurried, administering his trademark 1950s cut with all the ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony.

Nearing the end of the haircut, Sal reached into a drawer and pulled out a straight razor the size of a machete.

Then he picked up the leather strap hanging from your chair and began whacking the razor rhythmically back and forth against it -- WHAP! WHAP! WHAP!

After he sharpened the razor, you saw that his hands shook badly, perhaps with a touch of Parkinson's, and you closed your eyes and envisioned him lopping off one of your ears, the ear landing with a soft splat! on the floor like a slice of cucumber and a geyser of blood spurting toward the fluorescent lighting.

But as soon as he brought the razor to your sideburns, he was steady as a first-rate diamond-cutter.

And then the closing act of this wonderful operetta: Sal splashed some kind of liquid in his hands from a plastic bottle and then slapped it briskly behind your ears, across your neck.

Whatever it was, boy, it burned! It burned like gasoline or kerosene or something. Well, maybe not that bad. But it burned, all right, only then a funny thing happened: Right after it stopped burning, it felt soothing.

This was Sal's cue to whisk the apron from around your neck, brush the hair from your shoulders with a soft whisk brush, and say: "That'll be five bucks."

In my dream, I pressed six bucks into his hand, because that's the way I've always been, a big spender, generous to a fault -- at least when paying 1962 prices four years from the new millennium.

I awoke shortly thereafter and remembered I was supposed to stop at Brenda's Hair Emporium today for a trim.

The shampoo girl is Jennifer. She uses a guava conditioner that's to die for.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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